At its crux, Sis Gürdal’s short film, Postcards from the Orient, is a retrospective examination of the colonialist gaze of the Orient. The surrealist aesthetic wonder fixates on the time of the Ottoman Empire (16th – 18th centuries) when Western male artists travelled to paint women. Through camera composition and abstract production design, Gürdal, as the director and producer, and May Ziade, as writer, succinctly shatters images and paintings of hyper-sexualised Middle Eastern women, and challenges the fantastical representations of femininity in these diasporic visions of the Orient which still today hang in Western museums.
Debbie Zhou spoke to Gürdal about hidden colonialism, her striking visual style, and the tensions of working as an overseas Turkish filmmaker.
Debbie Zhou: Can you take me through the background of the short film and what drew you to telling or re-telling this part of history?
Sis Gürdal: Representation of the Eastern woman in Western art is very much a blurred line between fantasy and reality. During my research of Orientalist artwork, I looked at many countries. It happened in Algeria, with French artists; it happened in Egypt with British artists. I started seeing this large-scale pattern of false representation.
I thought about the camera being the Western artist, and approaching these women who are actually posing in the paintings, and once the camera really gets close, you can see that their expressions are a little different, that they have different ideas. I really wanted to appeal to an audience that could see through the immediate machinery of Orientalism and colonialism at work. I think that a lot of these elements of colonialist representation, which still exist, are very much hidden. And you have to look through the details to notice them.
DZ: What was it like balancing these perspectives — between the coloniser and the colonised, and how did it intertwine with the surrealist, experimental style that you ended up working in?
SG: I think that a lot of this was [done] by recreating the synergy between the painter and the person who was posing, because there’s an idea of representation that’s happening, but the painter is blind in the first place. He’s actually representing what’s in his own mind more than what’s in front of him. The whole idea of this short film was really to draw more attention to what these women want to be seen as, versus what they’re actually seen as. The idea was to enhance the concept of misrepresentation as much as possible.
We took it as far as using a male cinematographer, and a male camera operator. And while I’m not comparing them to the Western artists, we wanted to recreate that dynamic.
DZ: I’m curious to also hear about the allusions to certain paintings that you chose to include, and how you went about picking them.
SG: We’ve specifically focused on paintings that depicted this lifestyle of these women. So usually, you tend to see women who are living these opposite lives: eating fruits, playing instruments, they’re half naked, they’re always bathing, they’re always lying around, there’s nothing that really indicates anything — compared to their realistic lifestyle.
We also had a separate part of this project, which was to sculpt parts of their bodies — specifically, the chest, shoulders, neck etc. — any part of the body that highlights them as sensual objects instead of human beings. And that’s what goes down in history, it’s more than their identities, it’s their bodsoies. And we had specific paintings we were focusing on which were looking at these women more as sexual objects, then, ones which identified their personality.
DZ: Your cultural background as a Turkish artist who has spent time abroad is interesting, especially since you’ve also worked on high-end fashion campaigns too. What was it like making this film in New York, and communicating and directing your ideas with American crew, especially as a first-time filmmaker?
SG: I think the subject of representation, specifically around women, and around minority women is, thankfully, in a good spot within the filmmaking industry right now, and people are interested in working in these subjects more now more than ever. So all I really had to do was to communicate my vision, what I envisioned for it, and there was a lot of organic interest.
I think it’s also because we don’t really talk about Middle Eastern women as much as we do maybe other minorities. I think I had a better time working on this in the United States, more so than I would have had in Turkey because Turkey has a long way to go for female representation in film.
DZ: I really loved the style, the colours and really the attention to detail that you immersed your film in. How was the experience of creating this — and what was your visual direction inspired by?
SG: I’ve actually been thinking about this, self reflectively, a lot. And I think that it’s really interesting because I’m quite inspired by a lot of visual things, it could be a video, it could be an ad, it can be a fashion campaign, or a painting. I’m working on my first narrative short right now, and I’m thinking about how I can experiment visually, and all the ways that I could intersect narrative storytelling with those kinds of inspirations where it doesn’t feel like your average film world.
I think there’s so much creatively that can be added to a project by having a more surprising style. Postcards is classic in subject in any way you look at it. But what I like about it is that it doesn’t feel so old-school, and the style isn’t just a painting. So I really like clashing those two things. Working in fashion really showed me how you can really go one step further visually, and shoot outside the box — even if it’s just against a backdrop. And I would love to carry that into my other projects in the future.
Postcards from the Orient played at the Melbourne Short Film Festival, and is available to view for free on Azeema Magazine.
Debbie Zhou is an arts writer/critic and managing editor of Rough Cut. She’s just a bit obsessed with movies and theatre, and she will always get behind a good film score. Her words also appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal and more. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou